Museums, Monuments, and Memory

by J. Streker

Since I decided I wanted to work in museums, my approach to museums spaces has changed immensely.  Articles like the one by Hansen-Glucklich are integral to understanding how museums themselves can change the way you interpret their collection.  Because of the diffusion of the white cube display (images or artifacts displayed in a square room with white walls), which mimics a sterile and unbiased environment, the visitor is often lead to believe that they have a direct connection to the work of art, while in fact the curators and museums are manipulating the displays to try and elicit a desired narrative.  I recently thought about this during a visit to the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  There were two exhibitions on one floor, one featuring the relationship between a potter and photographer in the Southwest, and the other one the sculptures of a singular artist.  The two exhibits were connected in two places which made the blending of ideas together very easy, at one point I didn’t recognize I had wandered into the other exhibit.  The sculptures of the second exhibit were similar enough to the style of pottery in the first exhibit that I immediately understood that the curators were trying to draw a distinct connection between the artisan artistry of the two women and that they second potter was carrying out a tradition based off the first even if she was unaware of it.

When googling monuments in Amsterdam, I came across the Homomonument along a canal in Westermarkt.  The location and history of this monument is perfect for discussing Kuper’s theories on public memory, and for how the grammar of its presentation influence the public view of it.  The persecution of gays, and other social and ethnic minorities, are often forgotten in the dialogue of the Holocaust. The lower numbers and the current discourse and rise of LGBTQIA rights and openness can cultivate a feeling that remembrance is not as necessary as of the “greater” atrocities that occurred to the Jewish populations.  If memorials should reflect the reality of their time, should the presence of memorials reflect the multitude of what happened?

Homomonumentwestermarkt

The seamless integration of the monument into the surrounding area reminds me of discussions surrounding the Stolpersteine Project that puts bronze cobblestones in front of the houses and stores owned by victims of the National Socialist persecution, with their names.  While many people laud the project for making remembrance a part of the everyday, many people criticize it for its subtlety and the fact that the mini-memorials are constantly stepped on and walked over replicating the abuse of the victims.  I wonder if this was every discussed in relation to the Homomonument in Amsterdam, because at lease from the photos, there seems to be only a singular sign alerting the passerby of the monument in their midst.  This brings up the interesting question of the effect and presence of public monuments.  Are the effective in the everyday, or do they become so normal and part of the routine that they are looked over and their meaning forgotten?

Many cities are making a point to not forget the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s by building museums for Jewish history/culture/and art. Reesa Greenberg goes into detail on the display of Jewish persons and identity in several European Jewish Museums.  I found her discussion on the difference between Germanic Jewish Museums and non-Germanic museums particularly interesting, as someone who spent many formative years in Germany.  Her insight into how German and Austrian museums constantly refer back to the Holocaust as a defining point in Jewish history was enlightening as I had never questioned that practice before.  I was, and still am, unsure of her views on this practice though. In my personal opinion, it’s easy for non-German Jewish Museums to minimize the Holocaust, as the local culture may not feel as much guilt.  It is easy to say the murder of the local Jews of Paris and Amsterdam was the fault of the invading Germans and just a blip in the tolerant history of the city.  On the other hand, the slaughter of millions of Jews and other minorities is a defining moment in German history.  I commend them for not backing away from their guilt, but now see the museums almost as a type of therapy for the German people, and have to question if this is fair towards their Jewish communities.

 

References:

Greenberg, Reesa. “Jews, Museums, and National Identities.”

Ethnologies 242 (2002): 125–137.

Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer. “The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits.” Museums and the Challenges of Representation. Rutgers University Press. 2014.

Kuper, Simon, Ajax: The Dutch, The War – The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour (2012)

Images:

Geert-Jan Edelenbosch. Nederlands: Homomonument gezien vanuit de bovensteverdieping van Westermarkt 2.  16 October 2015.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Homomonumentwestermarkt.jpg

http://www.partyearth.com/amsterdam/venues/homomonument-2/

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7 thoughts on “Museums, Monuments, and Memory

  1. The short analysis that you have done on the Homomonument is very interesting it would very interesting to see how you compare the effectiveness of the Homomonument to other memorials, such as a Museums. It am interested to see if you answer two questions you raised in you original post, “If memorials should reflect the reality of their time, should the presence of memorials reflect the multitude of what happened?” and, “Are they effective in the everyday, or do they become so normal and part of the routine that they are looked over and their meaning forgotten?”. These two questions raise wonderful points and will allow you to explore different types of monuments and effectively compare and contrast them. Your anecdote about the street being named Erwin Rommel raised many questions and it would interesting to see how and why someone in such a complicated situation has a street named after them and how you think objects like this effect the future of public memory.

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  2. Louis Middelkoop and Matthew Pesko’s discussions on names on monuments and streets brought up a lot of questions for me. We are currently going through a similar thing in the US about slavery, that the Dutch did about slavery and colonialization, with the change of face on the $20 bill (from Andrew Jackson to Harriet Tubman), and the constant discussions surrounding race and the confederate flag. Can any country ever strike the perfect balance between maintaining discourse and dialogue while not alienating or offending parts of their population?
    The thing about street names reminded me of high school in Germany, where the street over was named after Erwin Rommel. Rommel was a General in the Third Reich, who committed suicide after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. To my knowledge, he is the only military figure of the Third Reich that can have streets named after him. The only issue with this is his role in the rose to power of the Nazi Party, and Hitler, but also that his knowledge of Nazi ideology and atrocities is still unknown. What does it serve to allow his figure to be revered and remembered? Is he even remembered, or has he gone the way of Coen, and Jefferson Davis, mostly forgotten by the people who drive his street every day?

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  3. Really nice mini-analysis of the Homomonument, and I can start to see the usefulness of H’s notion of “grammar” here: In fact, the designers have used the grammar of the street–curbs, sidewalks, bricks, gutters, etc.–laying it in so that it is disernable, but subtle, and so that it likely was intended to raise those very questions you said it is raising–are we “walking on the vicitms”? is this “replication” productive for the visitor in some way?

    Again, we could see the grammar here much more clearly if we contrast it with something more typical of, say, heroic monuments: pillars, men on horses, fountains, etc., even NPS-style “waysides” (that’s what NPS calls their ubiquitous signs) explaining that we are at a monument, vs. the absence of such signs.

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    1. By the way, “Homosexual” and even “Homo” are apparently not pejorative terms in Dutch. They’re neutral and, I think, often self-identified terms.

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  4. One thing that struck me in your post was the description of the Stolpersteine Project and the connection to the Homomonument in which there is a concern over walking on memorials and public monuments. I can see how this may be seen as disrespectful to the victims. And I love your questions on how this monuments may lose their meaning because of their public presentation. I think your questions can link to the Hansen-Glucklich chapter in which she questions whether the stylistic power of presentation and perspective may overshadow the meaning and remembrance. Do you think that some of these monuments and museums may focus too much on the design and forget the purpose of the memorial itself?

    Also, I was waiting to see your response to the Greenberg article because of your connection to Germany. Have you visited any of the museums mentioned or other Jewish history museums? If so, although the museums don’t skirt over the history, did you feel as though the country distanced themselves from the exhibits because of their fear of the subject? Also, while you lived in Germany, how did you see the current German population react to the Holocaust and museums on Jewish history?

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    1. I have been to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and I have found in my experience that the German museums and younger German people do not shy away from discussing the atrocities that occurred. Perhaps this is because they were not alive during the Holocaust so they don’t feel the immediate guilt that many from the older generations do. Museums in general distance themselves from their subject matter (in my opinion) in order to display things with the appearance of objectivity, so while I did notice this at the Jewish Museum, I didn’t notice it anymore so than anywhere else. But then again, back then, I wasn’t looking for that

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  5. I really like how you talk about the integration of the Homomonument along a canal in Westermarkt into the rest of the area and how you compare it to the Stolpersteine Project. I think it would very interesting to explore why some people enjoy the the remembrance and others outwardly criticize it. Beyond what you say in your post, why might people feel this way? How have these feelings developed/changed overtime? Your statement, “Are they effective in the everyday, or do they become so normal and part of the routine that they are looked over and their meaning forgotten?” can provide a really interesting starting point for further investigation into the role of public memory.
    I also found your anecdote from the National Museum of Women in the Arts to be intriguing because the curators were trying to display a connection between the display of the potter and photographer and the sculptor even though the artists might not have been aware of the connection.

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